If you’re like most people, your image of the Wild West is probably based on what’s been portrayed in movies and on television. You likely have images of cowboys, cattle drives, gunslingers, outlaws, and searches for piles of gold in mind when thinking of the Old West. Many depictions of life during this time in American history are somewhat exaggerated or based on stories that eclipsed the reality of that period. So read on to discover some things you may not know about the Wild West.
1. The 1849 Gold Rush Came 50 Years after America’s First Gold Rush
The California Gold Rush of 1849 is often given credit for inspiring westward expansion. And while this is true, it wasn’t the first time gold was discovered in America. In 1799, a man named Conrad Reed discovered a “yellow rock” in his dad’s field. Not knowing what it was, the family used it as a doorstop for many years! It wasn’t until a jeweler confirmed it was gold that the extreme quest for “gold in them thar hills” began.
2. Billy the Kid Wasn’t Left-Handed
It’s long-been assumed that William Bonney, a.k.a. “Billy the Kid,” was left-handed. The assumption was made based on the only confirmed photo of Bonney, a tintype taken in 1879, in which he’s holding a Winchester rifle. First of all, the guns made by the company at the time had a loading gate on the right side, not on the left as shown in the photo. This is easily explained. Tintype pics reverse images, as if looking in a mirror.
3. A 101 Year-old Man Claimed to be the ‘Real’ Jesse James
The real Jesse James died in 1882 at the age of 34 – having been betrayed by his friend, Bob Ford, in St. Joseph, Missouri. In 1848, a 101 year-old man named J. Frank Dalton attracted worldwide attention when he claimed to be James. To settle that claim once and for all, Dalton’s remains were exhumed in the year 2000. But, reportedly, the wrong body was tested! So there’s still no conclusive proof that “Frank Dalton” was not the infamous outlaw, after all.
4. The Pony Express was a Short-lived Financial Dud
Commonly associated with the Wild West, the iconic postal service, Pony Express, only lasted 19 months. Consisting of several relay riders, the service failed to make a profit. This was due to interruptions in service within dangerous territories, and the inability to secure a government contract. The service’s biggest drop was the delivery of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, in less than eight days.
5. Not Everyone Carried a Gun
Judging by what you’ve seen in just about every classic TV western, guns were everywhere in the Wild West. In reality, as populations throughout western territories grew, so did the need for gun laws. In fact, many western towns and cities had stricter gun restrictions back in the 1800s then what’s common today!
6. British Hats Were More Common Than ‘Cowboy Hats’
First manufactured in 1885 by John B. Stetson, what’s known today as the classic cowboy hat wasn’t the chapeau of choice for most folks in the Wild West. When hats were worn, the most popular style was the bowler hat. The hard felt hat is noted for its characteristic rounded crown. It was created by London hat-makers in the 1840s, so it wasn’t even uniquely American. The bowler hat became so popular that it eventually became a symbol of the upper class in Europe and northeastern U.S. cities.
7. Belle Starr Wasn’t the Wild West’s Only Female Outlaw
Becoming a popular figure after being featured in dime novels, Belle Starr is the best-known female outlaw of the Wild West. But she wasn’t the only one. Laura Bullion ran with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch gang. Rose Dunn robbed trains and banks in the Indian Territory. Pearl Hart robbed stagecoaches, but she wasn’t very good at it and got caught!
8. Early Western Settlers Reeked
It wasn’t until the 1870s that railroad travel became a popular mode of transportation to newly established western territories. Prior to this, early settlers had to travel for weeks, often without having an opportunity to bathe or change clothes. As a result, America’s early western settlers didn’t smell all that great. In fact, many Native Americans, who had long since adapted to the harshness of the land and bathed regularly, were actually repulsed by the stench.
9. The U.S. Army Imported Camels from the Middle East
In 1856, the United States Army decided to import several camels from the Middle East to Texas. The logic was that the desert-like conditions in the Wild West would be perfect for the animals. The program, which involved more than 50 camels, was abandoned once the Civil War broke out. The last of those camels was spotted in 1941.
10. The Famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Only Lasted 30 Seconds
The subject of a 1957 film starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, was the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which only lasted for roughly 30 seconds. It was a showdown based on a long-simmering feud between outlaws Billy Claireborne and the Clanton brothers, and lawmen Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers (Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil). At 3 p.m. on October 26, 1881, Billy Clanton and Wyatt Earp fired first before sporadic gunfire broke out. The shootout actually took place by C. S. Fly’s Photographic Studio in Tombstone, Arizona, not by the O.K. Corral.